Respiratory Therapists: Working at the Epicenter of a Pandemic

Breathing is a basic human function and seemingly involuntary until the moment your airway is obstructed. Every day, respiratory therapists are the first line of defense between life and death when patients struggle to breathe.

Respiratory Therapists

“Very few people outside of health care know the functions of a respiratory therapist. During this pandemic, the public now knows that respiratory therapists are an essential part of the health care team. They assist in managing patients with breathing and airway problems, when they have high oxygen demands and need ventilator care,” says Valory Peeples, MBA, RRT, director of Cardiopulmonary Services at Southeast Georgia Health System.

The best part of the job, says Heather Woods, a respiratory therapist at the Brunswick Campus, is helping patients in distress breathe easier. “If you get their breathing under control, their other vitals stabilize, and they feel better.”

A Multifaceted Profession

When not caring for COVID-19 patients in intensive care, therapists “run all over the hospital,” says Charlene Reinas, R.T. “We could be called into Maternity to help a pre-term baby, then 30 minutes later, be in the Emergency Care Center to intubate a patient who coded. We give breathing treatments to people with asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) and also teach them how to improve their lung function.”

Although Reinas, a Health System team member for 26 years, says the work is “stressful and physically and emotionally demanding,” it’s also rewarding. “Seeing people who were at death’s door get better, then come back in a few months later to thank me, makes it all worthwhile.”

Extraordinary Challenges

If the job was demanding pre-pandemic, it is especially intense now. With so much still unknown about coronavirus, a one size fits all treatment approach doesn’t work. “COVID-19 requires more of us as employees. A respiratory therapist must be ready to stand between life and death,” Woods explains. Her co-worker concurs. “COVID-19 patients require so much more time and resources,” Reinas says. Behind the scenes, Peeples continuously works with her team to make sure they have all of the respiratory supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) they need.

The virus impacts the therapists’ personal lives, too. “I moved into a bedroom separate from my husband, cancelled my vacation and don’t visit my family,” Reinas says. Woods has not seen her extended family since Christmas. Her relatives have not yet met or held her daughter who was born just as the pandemic began.

One of the hardest challenges for therapists is maintaining emotional strength when so many patients are gravely ill. Recalling moments when she stayed with dying patients whose families did not arrive in time to say goodbye, Woods says, “It takes a toll.”

Peeples endeavors to maintain morale, but notes, “With our community’s recent increase of COVID-19 patients, my team expressed concern that some people are still not wearing masks. When the pandemic started, the public was skeptical whether masks prevented the spread of COVID-19. We now know that masks decrease the chance of acquiring or spreading COVID-19. In my opinion, we will continue to see an increase in cases if people don’t wear masks as a part of their daily routine. Wearing a mask is about saving lives.”

From their perspective on the frontlines, Woods and Reinas heartily agree. “Don’t think it can’t happen to you or your family member,” Woods cautions. As a tourist destination, Glynn County is particularly vulnerable. “I never dreamed that such a virus would effect our community, but small tourist communities are being hit hard. We had several members of one family fighting for their lives a few rooms apart from each other. This is real,” Reinas says.

Rising to the Occasion

Despite facing the biggest test of their careers, Health System staff rise to the occasion. “Our respiratory team, along with all our team members, have done an exceptional job during the pandemic. Our respiratory therapists are always willing to step in and do whatever is required to support each other and our patients, including offering patients the encouragement they need to overcome their clinical situation,” Peeples says.

Wood agrees, “Supportive co-workers lighten the load. We work as a team. If I need help, they’re there. I love my co-workers.”

As they band together to fight a common foe, respiratory therapists find themselves in an unwelcome limelight. Along with their families, they make sacrifices to win the war on COVID-19. We can support them as they strive to restore health and hope to our community.

For more information on COVID-19 and how to protect yourself and your loved ones, visit For individuals experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, including but not limited to an unexplained cough, fever, and shortness of breath, call the Health System’s screening hotline: 912-466-7222.